A law for himself

Rarely does books wreak havoc among the closed circles of the Parisian elite. Rarely do they overthrow political and intellectual power and prompt judicial reform. Camille Kouchner’s The Familia Grandewhich chronicles the sexual abuse inflicted by her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, a high-ranking lawyer and academic, on her twin brother when they were teenagers, achieved all of those things.

When it was published in France in January 2021, it sold 350,000 copies, sparked hashtags such as “#MeTooIncest” and prompted action from President Macron. He commended the courage of a sister and vowed to listen to, believe and, crucially, better protect victims of incest. Legislation followed. Duhamel resigned from all his high-profile appointments, including a professorship at Sciences Po and directorships of research institutions such as the Institut Montaigne, before admitting to the accusations made against him: he was protected from prosecution by the French statute of limitations. His admission provoked a cascade of resignations among those in his orbit.

The Familia Grande was originally published as an autobiographical novel as part of Le Seuil’s elegant series, but the title page of the English edition makes it clear that the book is a memoir. This reframing raises the question of how literature in its various forms can add to the debate about the protection of children from abuse.

The Kouchner family is obviously not an average household. Camille’s mother, Évelyne Pisier, was a law professor at the Sorbonne; her aunt Marie-France was an actress, known for her roles in François Truffaut’s films. Her father, Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, also served as health and foreign affairs minister. He was always traveling; His wife divorced him in 1984, and three years later married Duhamel, also a law professor, and the son of a former cabinet minister under President Pompidou. This reconstituted family would spend summers on Duhamel’s idyllic estate in Provence, where a host of guests, cherry-picked by Duhamel, formed the hippie, seemingly happy commune that gives the book its title. Visitors including ministers and social climbers came and went, while the children played Scrabble and learned to debate the soixante-huitard ideals handed down by their parents. Évelyne, Marie-France and Paula Caucanas – Kouchner’s maternal grandmother – had one word on their lips, freedom, advocating sexual liberation as the only true road to self-fulfilment.

But games were to take a more sinister turn: Kouchner writes that young girls were paraded to friends with make-up beyond their years and photographed naked; that she was asked to simulate sex; and that young men were offered to older women for intercourse. Involving other people seemed to be a way for Duhamel to dilute his guilt, emboldened perhaps by a culture in which sex between adults and minors received the blessing of luminaries such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Roland Barthes (as well as Bernard Kouchner), who had signed a petition in 1977 to decriminalize such encounters and lower the legal age of consent. It is in this part of the book that we learn that Camille’s twin, here named Victor, has been abused by Duhamel, the beloved, loving and charming stepfather: “’Do you think it’s wrong?’ Well, no, I didn’t. It was him, so obviously it was fine. He was just teaching us, that was all. We weren’t prudes”. This is the beginning of a grueling account of how incest destroys a whole family.

Guilt, or the “hydra”, as Kouchner calls it, is “like a snake … you don’t always know when it will lash out and paralyse you. My guilt is my twin.” She is thoughtful on the subject of how to write ethically about her brother’s abuse when his wish has always been to move on, to try to forget. Kouchner avoids appropriating her brother’s pain. Instead, she deconstructs the power relations, the vulnerability of children dependent on the love and care of their stepfather, and unravels the implacable law of silence that perpetuates itself as a perverse mechanism of co-dependency. Duhamel asks for the shameful family secret to be hushed up, supposedly to protect Évelyne, who has just lost both her parents to suicide. Kouchner’s mother reprimands her for not having spoken up about the incest, but appears to have turned a blind eye to it herself. There is also the complicity and silence of the “familia grande”, those outside the immediate family circle who were aware of the permissive atmosphere of the summer house, but depended on Duhamel for political or professional favours.

Writing about incest in the work of Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike argued that “rape is the sexual sin of the mob, adultery of the bourgeoisie, and incest of the aristocracy”. This may be accurate when it comes to literature, but it is entirely wrong, of course, in reality, as all occur across the social spectrum. Yet there may be another truth to it in the light of Kouchner’s portrayal of her stepfather as “a king in his court”. Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan located the very principle of the rule of law in the universality of the incest taboo. It is therefore painfully ironic that Duhamel is a specialist in constitutional law and worked for the legal body in charge of checking the constitutionality of laws.

That literature has now talked back to the legislators is, of course, heartening. Vanessa Springora’s recent memoir, Consent (TLS, July 3, 2020), was explicitly quoted in the white paper that informed the legal amendment that raised the age of legal consent for sexual acts between adults and minors in France to fifteen. Kouchner’s book was instrumental in raising the age of consent for incestuous acts to eighteen, to protect victims who felt ashamed for not resisting when groomed and caught in a power dynamic. Another recent memoir recalling incest, Christine Angot’s Le Voyage dans l’Est, published a few months after the amendment, reminds us how power relations sadly survive beyond legal majority. Angot has since taken legislators and lawyers to task for what is in her opinion an absurdity: a legal age of consent to incest.

Kouchner is well aware that much more needs to be done, not least to understand the workings of traumatic memory or extend the statute of limitations. Yet, if The Familia Grande has had such an impact, it is doubtless because it exposes so compellingly the ways in which incest depends on the protagonist’s fantasy of being a law unto themselves, and how society can be complicit when that arrogance serves its interests. As a piece of testimonial writing, this book raises the pressing question of the power of literature. Literariness here is not so much a question of style but of an ethical stance, reflected in Kouchner’s capacity to overcome the particularities of the political and intellectual world into which she was born. In the perilous exercise of speaking for her brother, her pared-down sentences unrelentingly scrutinize her own guilt, however unjust, the somatized pain of humiliation, yet also her stubborn resilience.

The Familia Grande opens with Évelyne’s funeral and the painful hypocrisy of social ceremony on display: “I have lost my mother a thousand times; I won’t lose her this time.” Camille Kouchner’s memoir is also a work of mourning for her mother, concurrently posing the harrowing question of whether she can forgive her. It is all the more poignant for retracing the journey from childhood dependency to her adult ability to face her parents’ responsibility with unflinching lucidity. This has perhaps allowed her to break free from the hydra.

Henriette Korthals Altesis a Research Fellow at the Maison Française d’Oxford

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